A treat for you this week as Sophie and I actually got out of our duvet dens to meet and record the podcast in person and we were thrilled to be able to tour round the home of Sophie Ellis Bextor, who lives with her husband, Richard Jones, also a musician, and their five sons. Sophie, for those of you may not know was also labelled as “the woman from lockdown kitchen disco” by the BBC (charming!) and for those of you who didn’t see her joyful instagram kitchen concerts, she has had a string of hits, seven albums, a very successful spin on Strictly Come Dancing and, well if that’s not ringing any bells her Mum is Janet Ellis who was a Blue Peter presenter between 1979 and 1987.
So come on in and of course we have to start in the kitchen – familiar to so many as the place where Sophie dressed up in sequins and heels and hosted a virtual disco for anyone who wanted to watch on instagram while deftly manoeuvring round a crawling Mickey (then aged 14 months in the first lockdown) or dancing with one of her other four sons who wandered on and off set with a casual acceptance that showed either how they are used to their mother’s performing or didn’t quite realise what was going on.
For anyone who may have forgotten (!) or who isn’t in the UK, the first lockdown started on 23 March 2020. Sophie and her family had already been isolating at home for a week when it was announced as one of her sons had been sent home from school with a cough.
“Suddenly all our work was cancelled – we had tours planned and live performances and a year of work and suddenly it was tumbleweed,” she says. “The news was so heavy and I was feeling really useless and I had all these amazing friends who starting doing things and playing the piano and accompanying themselves and I didn’t know how to do that.
“Then Richard said ‘Let’s just do a gig. We can put some songs on and we’ll do a party set,’ and there was something about the sheer lunacy of it that appealed. So I got out my sequin catsuit and put my rollers in and off we went. And our youngest, Mickey, was just 14 months old at the time and he was crawling around the floor and there were wires everywhere and I thought this is just destined for disaster and if we do manage to broadcast it people will laugh at me for looking so ridiculous.
“But actually I loved the scattergun nature of it; singing is what makes me feel better when everything outside the walls is a bit wonky.”
The kitchen disco was an instant hit. Not least because everyone was desperate for some light relief and an excuse to dance in their own kitchens to familiar songs but also because of the sheer relatability of it. Stepping over kids, handing drinks to others, the multi-tasking that is familiar to so many parents even our relatibility is more about trying to break up a fight silently while attending a phone meeting rather than dancing round lego in stilettos while wearing sequins.
The discos continued weekly through the first lockdown and intermittently afterwards as the children were in and out of school. Sophie points out that her kitchen really does look like this too with sequin bunting and laser lights and a giant pinball machine dividing the disco (usually playroom) from the kitchen.
The walls are painted in Farrow & Ball Setting Plaster, which is a perfect neutral with a blast of deep orange Charlotte’s Locks facing the window. This is where she wrote her lyrics in case she forgot but as the weeks went on her sons would rub them out mid disco in an effort to put her off. It never did.
“I learnt all the lyrics and so it wan’t a problem but it was there as a safety blanket.”
Sophie and Richard bought the Grade II listed house 12 years ago and its status means that they aren’t allowed to make many structural changes – and any that are made have to have permission. So most of the changes have been cosmetic and exuberant.
“The walls were white before I found this pink and that did bother me. I love doing my home up and it is constantly evolving. It’s like tending a bush to make it flower non-stop.”
She is also an avid collector and the home is full of vintage posters, religious iconography, kitsch statues, ornaments and lego. There is a giant milkshake and a supersize ice cream cone in the living/dining room.
“Richard wouldn’t dare push back and I have tried to clear surfaces and stuff but it makes me feel more anxious. I like being surrounded by stuff. This house looks very grown up from the outside but I like that it’s a riot inside.”
One of Sophie’s more unexpected red threads is the House of Hackney Artemis wallpaper which she has in four different colourways in different rooms.
“This is an Arts and Craft house and the Artemis wallpaper is their William Morris inspired design and that’s a good link. And it’s good in a kitchen because it’s not very kitcheny but I love that. Also we spend a lot of time in here and I want excitement everywhere I look.”
Which is a very good rule of thumb for decorating I think. Even if you tone it down from excitement to joy. But essentially why decorate to give yourself boring views – always try to create a vista that you want to look at.
In addition to the colour and collections there are a couple of neon signs. One, in an echo of Sophie’s tattoo says Family. The other, just visible from the kitchen into Richard’s studio says Nice Amp – apparently the first thing she ever said to him.
So Richard has his studio but where does Sophie write and practice? Like many women: “There is no space for my work but that is ok – I have found a way through that. My work is any spot I happen to find at the time.”
And then I took a break during the typing of these notes and saw an instagram story from Sophie saying she was working on her bed using her kids’ coloured pens to edit her book manuscript. She is also used to being interrupted constantly. But how does all the stuff work with so many children?
“I have got five kids and I want them to be stimulated and see stuff all the time and see where it leads in their thoughts so of course they can touch and look. Everything will break, and while I love all the things if there was a fire it can all go up in smoke. I don’t feel defined by things.
“But I do love them and they do tell a story. I remember when I bought them and where from and some are things that have been given to me. Everyone is here and everywhere I have been and everyone I have met that I care about they are all here.
“We spend too much time worrying about what other people think of our homes and our taste but no-one sees unless you invite them in.”
Words to live by for sure. Do listen to the rest of the podcast as we tour the rest of Sophie’s house. You can also listen to her own podcast Spinning Plates and her biography, of the same name, is out later this year.
With huge thanks as ever to Harlequin for sponsoring the podcast.